This novel came to my attention in my senior seminar course, “Third World Feminisms and Nationalism,” although it’s been on my book shelf for several years, now. I have a bad habit of buying handfuls of books before I have time to read the last stack, but I’m guessing many of you do, too, if you’re reading this blog. This book actually came from my sister, though. I had bought a copy with a Christmas gift card, after reading a chapter from it in my Indian Literature class a couple years ago, but she let me have her copy instead, which meant I got to pick out something new! Thanks Kate!
This is the story of Estha and Rahel, the two-egg twins of Ammu, and an event that changed their lives permanently and irreversibly. Set in the village of Ayemenem, in the southwest region of Kerala, India, the story jumps between two times, a two-week period in 1969 when the twins’ half-white British cousin Sophie comes to visit, and then 23 years later when the twins have returned to their home. Though told in the third person, most of the story is seen from the eyes of Estha and Rahel, young children in the 60s, filling the text with their playful language and innocent thought processes, despite the seriousness of their surroundings.
At the heart of this novel are the complex issues of India’s caste system, the Love Laws, which “lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much”, and the outspoken voices of communism. Roy builds a elaborate narrative using this foundation of history that kind of makes me want to read it again right away, so as to pick up on more that I was able to the first time around. What’s more, is that she uses her background of architecture to build her novel, deliberately designing its structure, placing glimpses of events to come throughout the text, seemingly given stuff away right from the beginning, and systematically switching between time periods each chapter. The reader learns right from the beginning, for example, that Sophie Mol dies at the end of those two weeks in 1969, a point that might be at the climax of most stories. Instead, the novel’s about what happens leading up to that point, and how the family is still feeling the effects of the tragedy two decades later.
Though the story is heartbreaking, Roy’s enchanting use of language (a reclaiming of English as no longer the colonizer’s language) and breathtaking descriptions kept me thinking about it while I was washing my hair or folding the laundry, anxious to get back. And what truly secured it as one of the most beautiful books I’ve read in a long time was its ending. One of sweetness, one of hope.